Vancouver Canucks defenseman Alex Edler has taken a major step forward this season, but he’s not having a bounce back campaign.
Only nine months removed from finishing the 2013-14 campaign with the league’s worst plus/minus rating - a statistic for which he was much maligned this past offseason - Edler is putting together his best season as an NHL defenseman. It’s also his first season, really, as a signature “1A” defender.
Currently Edler leads all Canucks defensemen in scoring, in even-strength goal differential, in even-strength shot attempt differential, and in ice-time. He actually leads all Canucks defenders in ice-time by a wide margin - averaging three minutes more per contest than Vancouver’s second most frequently used blue-liner, Kevin Bieksa.
There are currently only eight defenseman in the league playing at least two-and-a-half minutes more per game than the next most frequently used defenseman on their team. For two of those defenseman (Tyler Myers, Erik Johnson), it’s likely a result of their club’s defensive depth, or lack thereof. For the rest, it’s that they’re super elite (Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Niklas Kronwall, Ryan Suter, Erik Karlsson, Kris Letang).
On Monday night in Florida, Edler once again led all Canucks defenders in ice-time and was on the ice for the final 54 seconds of a one-goal game. He was tasked, along with regular partner Chris Tanev, with closing out a win against a quality opponent on the road.
In past seasons Edler has been an All-Star. He’s nearly hit 50 points. Still, he hasn’t been a mainstay late in close games. Not when defensive options like Dan Hamhuis and Willie Mitchell have been available on the left side for much of his career.
Canucks assistant coach Doug Lidster - a former Canucks defenseman who played close to 900 games in the NHL - rejects the “1A” label for Edler, but he knows how valuable the 28-year-old defenseman has been this year.
“I don't generally say oh this is a 1A, and (this is a second pair guy)... I don't want to pigeonhole players,” Lidster told Canucks.com this weekend. “They kind of establish their own level, just by the way they play and whether they rise to the opportunity when given the opportunity.
“I know that Alex has done a terrific job this year.”
That Edler has been terrific, even arguably the club’s single most valuable contributor, is beyond doubt. Vancouver is currently second in the Pacific Division and it’s tough to imagine them being anywhere close to that were it not for the contributions of Edler and Tanev.
“Those guys, I believe, have probably been our most consistent players right from the beginning of the year,” Lidster said of his top-pair.
Lidster took over responsibility for running the defense this summer, and is likely to receive the lion's share of the credit for helping to rejuvenate Edler’s career after his dismal 2013-14 season. Of course, it’s worth noting that Edler’s ghastly results last season were something of a mirage.
Plus/minus is a flawed stat. A much ballyhooed metric that does a poor job of capturing a player’s actual defensive contribution.
In Edler’s case, for example, his league worst plus/minus rating in 2013-14 wasn’t driven by any atrophying defensive ability - though that’s the popular perception. It was driven rather, by the club’s inability to finish in the offensive end.
There are two sides to the plus/minus coin, and the defensive side of the game is just half of it. As Lidster joked when asked about what caused Edler’s ugly plus/minus number in 2013-14: “Goals for, and goals against.”
In fact, with Edler on the ice at 5-on-5 last season, the Canucks weren’t even allowing goals against at a significantly higher rate than they have in past years. (Chart on right)
In other words: the team was more permissive defensively with Edler on the ice when he had an even rating in 2011-12, than they were last season when he was minus-39.
“We always measured players (impact) in terms of chances for and chances against - not the plus/minus,” Tampa Bay Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness, who coached Edler in Vancouver for the majority of his career, told Canucks.com this weekend. “And Alex was always in the plus in terms of creating chances for and (limiting) chances against. That's always a more telling stat.
“Sometimes your team just goes into a slump and you're not scoring goals. And plus/minus is more a reflection of that, than it is the goals against,” Bowness continued.
Lidster similarly doesn’t care much for the archaic metric.
“We don’t generally look at plus/minus, we look at other stats,” he explained.
If Edler’s dismal 2013-14 season was largely a mirage - and it was - then perhaps any romantic stories about Lidster having a steadying impact on Edler’s defensive game should be read as fiction. What’s not fiction is that Edler’s game has indeed taken a leap forward this year - both in terms of his defensive results, and in terms of the responsibility being given to him.
It would seem, by Lidster’s account, that all he’s really tried to do is keep it simple.
“I think that the coaches responsibility - all of the coaches - is to provide an environment that conducive to the players to succeed,” Lidster said. “It's an environment where they can be comfortable and not worried about external things that they can't control - they only have to focus on the things that they can control.
“That's all we did. We never talked about last year or any previous season or anything like that.
“That's about as simple as I can make it,” Lidster continued, “and that's about as simple as it was. It's not a formula. I didn't think that I had to do anything particularly earth shattering to help Alex. He was a player that obviously came prepared to have a good season.”
Edler is having more than a good season, of course, which perhaps shouldn’t be much of a surprise. While Edler’s two-way game seems to have improved, he simply never was the sort of defensive liability that his league-worst plus/minus number suggested.